Sunday, 4 August 2013

Constantly Moving: Four days along Norway's National Bicycle Route 4

It never changes. As a child and an adult, the beginning of academic summer holidays gape like a chasm of time in front of you and the last weeks race past, like a speeding train. Which was handy, because I needed a train to get me and my bike over to the other side of Norway, the plan being to ride back towards Bergen following Norway's National Bicycle Route 4.

My journey was delayed by a day due to unforeseen explosion in the number of tourists wanting to travel to Oslo, or any one of the magnificent stops in between that draw people from all over the world, to marvel at the mountains, glaciers, fjords and waterfalls. Being a day late and unable to secure a reliable GPS course through the city and suburbs of Oslo I decided to start my journey in Hønefoss. Despite dry but cloudy scenes of Norwegian life blurring past the windows for five hours, I stepped onto the platform at Hønefoss in a light drizzle. As I orientated myself in the small town, and faffed around with the sudden need to change my clothes, I promptly rode off without filling my water bottles.

There was no signage for this supposed 'national' bicycle route in the town, and none on the back roads either. Back in Bergen, and in Oslo too, the National Bicycle Routes are marked with red signs, indicating the direction and route number (some of the routes share trails in places). Instead I followed a blurry map, hastily printed off the internet, and used a couple of GPS apps on my iPhone to get the lay of the land in front of me. I seemed to be going in the right direction, but then how many times have we bent to lines of reality to fit our map?

I was getting thirsty too, ironic considering the amount of water falling from the sky, streaming across the road and spraying up from my tires. I cursed my lack of composure at the start, I cursed the rain, I cursed the lack of signage that had me checking and rechecking my progress at each deathly quiet road junction. To counteract the blackness three things happened in fairly quick succession that brought some balance back. I found a huge patch of delicious wild raspberries, a picture-perfect stave church yielded a water pump to fill my bottles and it stopped raining.

The last few hours of the first day continued with it's contrasts. I hit the gravel roads at last, which slowed my tempo but increased the grin factor. I got a little lost on the xeroxes of forest tracks but then stumbled across my first bike trail sign, even if it wasn't the kind I was expecting. My first attempt at camp, perched on a sandy bench on the banks of a boulder strewn river was optimistic, I'll agree. My 'interestingly' configured SL-3, one side opened up completely and entirely staked down with rocks, was a bit Robinson Crusoe and was no match for the next rain storm that came sweeping down the valley. In the pouring rain I moved camp to a far less picturesque but benign spot, next to a quiet road.

The next day started brighter, although most everything I had was damp by now. Today would be a morning of up, followed by an afternoon of down, over Vassfaret, home of our very wet and bug infected packrafting trip last summer. The quietness of bike travel worked to my advantage along the quiet, shaded forest roads. I got to see a pair of cranes, wading in a road-side marsh, and I shared a moment with a young moose, my first wild one of the species. We stared at each other for a few moments, probably with polar feelings of fear and wonderment, before he crashed off through the trees as I struggled futilely with my camera.

First shop of the trip was one of those little magic moments when the ordinary feels extra-ordinary. I cruised up and the aisles for some time, especially the bakery and chilled drinks sections where I bolstered my rations. I sat down on the kerb outside and watched village life unfold for a few minutes. Old people chatting through car windows and what looked like the local mechanic, pulling into the parking spaces in a red Firebird. Refueled on ice coffee and bananas it was time for the climb over Vassfaret. The local bom (toll) road services many of the local hyttes and climbed ruthlessly for miles on rough Tarmac roads. Eventually the ice coffee wore off and I was forced to walk up some sections. 

Sweat poured down my face. I alternated between walking and riding to give the different muscle groups a break. I kept thinking I recognized certain roads from our trip last year, but then they all look very similar. Eventually I got to the 'top'. It wasn't really a peak, just a flatter section with a cooler wind and some showers. Once I started rolling down the other side I had to suit-up a bit. Arm and knee warmers, windshirt, gloves even. The ever-so-slightly-always-descending rollers were a blast. The road surface was really well compacted dirt and gravel and the tires hummed. Then I hit the edge of the valley and the road just dropped away. Down on the drops, brakes squealing into the countless bends. It was all worth it, all the sweat and screaming legs. I've had a lot of fun, on a lot of different bikes, over the years but those minutes, with the bike slewing through gravel corners under a full touring load, were right up there with the best.

When I hit the Tarmac again things just went warp speed. Insects bounced off my helmet and glasses, all sounds reduced to a constant roar of wind. The road that had taken hours to walk down on softened feet last summer blitzed by in a few minutes. I rolled effortlessly into Nesbyen and found a campsite with a dreamy flat, dry lawn, warm breeze that dried everything in minutes, and a shower. 

It was almost like starting afresh the next morning. Everything was clean and dry and I was well rested. The only fly in the ointment was that the maps I had made it quite clear that I now had to travel along highway 7, a main vehicular artery, north and south. Trucks and coaches rumbled close by and I had to remain focussed on keeping myself tight to the barrier as I headed up the valley. I was also blighted by a creaking, grinding left pedal/crank, which took two pit stops to finally diagnose properly and fix. Just before I reached Gol a bike lane suddenly appeared. Sweet relief. The tension in my shoulders released and I could pedal along in the sunshine, while the heavier traffic continued to rumble past, on the other side of the barrier. On the western side of Gol I finally picked up the National Bicycle Route 4 signs, their bright red facade cheered me up even more. This was an intersection with National Bicycle Route 5 too, so both trails would share this section, climbing up through the valley.

The route flitted between both sides of the main road and river, the surface alternating between bike lanes, quiet 'B' roads and gravel access roads. I passed swimming spots, fishing streams, local shops, small industrial units and holiday hyytes. Wild flowers of every colour spilled out of the hedgerows and the stops to plunder raspberries increased. I lost my way a little where the trail collides with a busy, but what looks to be fairly temporary, quarrying operation and had to back-track a couple of km's to find a slightly hidden and still ambiguous route sign. This turn would now take me away from the valley and the river and up into more alpine surroundings. The forest became drier as the gravel road ground higher and higher, through switchback corners onto the valley wall. I had been climbing most of the the day and it was about to get even steeper. Geilo, a local hot spot for mountain biking in the summer and skiing in the winter, lay up and around the corner, in the next valley. I still had a few hundred metres of climbing to do. The gravel road turned into jeep track and became hot and chalky white as the afternoon sun beat down. I took a break next to a river and watched a pair of mink play along the margins.

It was late in the day now. My fuel tank was low, I had had a little too much sun on my left side and the road still went up. Subsequent sign posts to Geilo disagreed with each another. One minute I was told I was within 8km, then I was still 15km out. I pushed my bike up the steepest part of the trip, gasped at the top and made a calculated decision to empty my snack and water reserves. The map showed a descent of a few hundred metres into Geilo but I wasn't quite there yet. Those few km's along those flat trails were hard work. Then suddenly the road pitched down and I was bouncing down a rough jeep track towards Geilo. Past a gate and a recycling plant and I swished straight into some suburbs with people lounging on the porches and lawns, kids playing in the long Scandinavian evening. It should be pretty easy to find a campsite in Geilo, I thought, and no sooner did I think it than I passed a large house with camping and hyttes offered. I rolled into a rapidly filling campsite and staked my claim to the spot with a tree to assist with washing line and bike security details.

Nothing was dry in the morning. Still, damp air hung over the campsite and everything was covered in dew. My washed liner shorts and riding shirt were hanging wet and lethargically on my washing line inside the tent. The weather forecast for the next day was the most worrying aspect. Wild and tempestuous. Weather warnings for the whole of western Norway covered the homepage of I had today to get over the mountains.

I stocked up with some supplies at a garage in Geilo and hit the road to Haugastøl, the beginning of the Rallarvegen bike trail over the mountains. I passed some more bike tourers on the low angled grind up past Ustaoset. They looked like real world travelers, with four panniers each, beards and tans to match a summer of exploration (well, the girl didn't have a beard...). I reckoned I had to do about 50km in the morning to give myself plenty of time to descend the other side to shelter. They sky darkened the further I climbed.

I couldn't resist another pit-stop at Haugastøl. Plenty of people were about, despite the weather and groups and families, on hire bike and their own, were being shuttled about in trucks and big shiny cars. Other groups of riders readied themselves at the rear of their cars, sheltering from some light drizzle beneath the boot door as they checked tire pressures and filled pockets and packs with bananas and chocolate. The Rallarvegen is wonderful in this respect. Due to it's location along the Bergen-Oslo train line it offers a totally customizable itinerary depending on your group's abilities, available time and prevailing weather conditions. Downhill only? Finse to Flåm, train back. The whole shebang in a day? Haugastøl to Mydal, train back. With bike hire and drop-off available all along the route you can train in from Oslo or Bergen, wearing nothing but 'active' clothing and enjoy some magnificent mountain scenery and be back at your city hotel by dinner time.   

Time to get moving. Caramel cookie down, it was time to churn out some miles. The 30km to Finse is pretty much all up but it's at a very easy gradient. With a tail wind it was even easier and I made hay while the sun refused to shine. At the almost legendary snack stop at Halvfarhella I came across a large group of, let's say, more mature Norwegians who were having a grand old time. Eating cake and supping on water bottles, they cheered and saluted me as I ground my way over the rise like a pro bike racer, past the snack stop without stopping. I passed a few more smaller knots of riders as the sky blackened.

Claps of thunder and a sudden downpour had me scurrying behind some rocks to don full wet weather gear and evaluate the situation. The forecast was for broken weather today, with the possibility of some thunderstorms. The really bad stuff was due tomorrow. What if they had got it wrong? I decided to keep heading to the train station, hotel and cafe at Finse and decide from there. I could always bug out on the train if things looked bad.

As it turned out it wasn't so bad. While I was racing to get over the mountains before the bigger storm tomorrow it turned out I was chasing today's smaller thunderstorms west over the Rallarvegen today. Finse had obviously seen a lot more rain just before my arrival, judging by the puddles everywhere and the train station platform was oddly bereft of people at high season. There were some hiding in the cafe and others sheltering in the waiting room. Hikers, bikers and holiday makers. 

After a short break I decided to press on. I still had some more 'up' to bag before the 30km descent from the Rallarvegen's high point. This is the most popular stretch of the route and I passed more and more people, many of them stopping to enjoy the spectacular views of the mountains, glaciers and waterfalls. I felt a pang of conscience that I wasn't doing the same. I was racing over the route with my own agenda this time. I had taken my time last summer and enjoyed the sights in the the company of friends, relishing in the wildness, taking photos and sliding across the snow. We had stopped for waffles and coffee and camped on the shores of a mountain lake. I wrestled with those thoughts for a while and made peace that I was still enjoying the trail, just in a different way. I met another cyclist at the high point. He was the only person to ride past me. We were drawn together by our mutual outdork gear nerdiness. He saw my Revelate Designs bikepacking packs and I his Rohloff Speedhub. Turns out he's ridden the Tour Divide and was on a family holiday but had been given permission to yo-yo the Rallarvegen today. We set off down the descent together but his far lighter load, coupled with bouncy forks, meant he was able to cream the rocky sections and water bars while I crashed through them with a little less deftness. 

I started to catch up with what must have been the morning train's passengers. Vast family groups, spread out over several km's of trail, kids fearlessly bouncing down the trail with smiles on their faces, while the rest of the family pitched down each steep section one at a time. I passed carefully on the left whenever I could, my wee bell proving valuable even here, away from the city bike paths. Some bottlenecks occur, especially at those points where chain railings are in place to stop errant cyclists from plunging over cliffs, and the non-regular cyclists sensibly get off their bikes. I caught up with my Rohloff-geared friend at these points and we enjoyed wrestling our bikes through the rough sections. This is where the trail is really picturesque, with waterfalls and aquamarine river glides on both sides.

Too soon the trail flattens and there is the short, sharp climb up to the train station at Myrdal. With the famous Flåm railway intersecting here with the main Oslo-Bergen line this is a very busy station in short, intense moments when one trains empties and everyone rushes to the next. The surrounding scenery is spectacular with steep glacial valleys, waterfalls and clouds below your feet. When the station temporarily quietened I sat down with some carrot cake and a soda and passed on some advice to a huge American family group who were readying themselves to take the plunge down to Flåm on hire bikes. They wouldn't need the gears and correct seat height they were worrying about. All they needed were both brakes working and their camera at the ready.

It was here I decided to cut my trip short by a day or so. The forecast for the next day was still shockingly bad and I had to start work on Monday morning. Instead of taking the short trip on the train through the tunnel to Upsete, and continuing by bike to Voss and the Emerald Ribbon trail, I decided to save that nugget for another weekend and ride the local train back to Bergen.

I really enjoyed this trip. I set off with minimal planning and sketchy navigation but found my way along just fine. Despite the odd bit of rain the weather was great, and fairly typical for Norway in summer. My bike and gear performed handsomely, with only a little room for improvement, and I gained plenty of inspiration for future adventures, along similar, and also different, parameters. Relaxing at home on Saturday I was glad I made the decision to cut the trip short when I saw the photos and read the reports of people out battling the weather. I'd ridden further and harder than I had in a long, long time, since my racing days in the early Nineties. I enjoyed how riding a bike fills the gap between fleeting, impersonal, motorized transportation and the slow, total immersion of walking. I didn't stop as much on this trip as I have on others, evident by the meagre amount of photos I took and no video. This was possibly due to having been through some of the places before but also by the urge to keep moving. Starting and stopping on a bike takes more effort, especially when filming or photographing yourself. There is a fine balance between the effort of pedaling and convective and evaporative heat loss and I find this requires more frequent tuning than when walking, so I just kept riding to keep the equilibrium in balance. 

Officially, that is my summer over with. I return to work a week earlier than most of my colleagues, to help get the school ready for another academic year, but I'm sure we'll have some more fine, warm weather weekends to enjoy before my favourite time of year comes around. 

No comments: